Every Woman a Witch
At the age of fifteen, I was accused of Witchcraft while enrolled at a Christian “academy” for my freshman year of high school.
Granted, I was always a strange child, and didn’t really fit anywhere. I spent most of my pre-high school days at an all-girl Catholic school, but because of bullying and my crippling social anxiety, my parents decided to send me to a co-ed environment to see if being around boys would help. And at that point I was already deeply and profoundly religious, spending most of my weekends at mass with my Catholic father and Baptist Bible Study with my mother’s family.
As a regular customer at several Christian and Catholic bookstores, I collected prayer cards and pamphlets like a boy hoards baseball cards. I was so obnoxious that I’d even hand out the Bibles in religion class as if they were made of precious crystal. And I was always the first to volunteer for anything that got me the slightest bit of attention at Church, from reading scripture to singing at the microphone. So going to an evangelical school didn’t seem out of place at the time.
But when I was attending this Christian “academy,” a rumor started that I was a Witch, and that’s when all hell broke lose. The girls had always bullied me, but now the boys had chimed in too. I was devastated. They all threw Bible quotes at me, such as this little gem from Leviticus 20:27: “A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.”
I was hurt (and scared) by the entire incident, and things only got worse when one of my teachers had me stand up in front of the class and proclaim that Jesus was my Savior and that I was not, in fact, a Witch. Another teacher pulled me aside the next day to suggest that I not bring my archeology and ancient Egypt books to school anymore because it gave “people the wrong idea.” I insisted that I wanted to be more of an Indiana Jones than the Wicked Witch of the West, but that argument was lost on the grown ups.
Now, to most people, the idea of accusing someone of Witchcraft in modern times seems absurd, but in South Louisiana the occult plays a part in our culture. As a resident, you inevitably become accustomed to mentions of voodoo, ghosts, vampires and Witches, even if you don’t believe in their existence. And it’s one of the reasons tourists flock to places like New Orleans – to experience something dark and mysterious that’s different from the life they lead in other states or countries.
One by one they peek into Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo to see the sacred altar, or into Esoterica Occult Goods & Witchcraft Tools to buy items that appeal to their superstitions. Yet, they are always shocked to discover that there a living, breathing human beings who associate themselves with Witchcraft, and that there are men and women alive today who call themselves Witches and celebrate the cycles of the Earth as was done thousands of years ago.
Of course, I didn’t know this until I was accused of Witchcraft myself, an event which sparked a lifelong curiosity about women and religion. And when it comes to Witchcraft, the first problem is that there is no definitive definition for a Witch. Everyone has a different idea, based on TV, films and fiction. And often enough, these definitions have been manipulated, contrived and slandered for thousands of years, causing people to forget how historically significant the role of the Witch has been throughout the history of women.
But what exactly is a Witch?
Sure, you could believe early Christian propaganda, that the Witch is an evil whore of the devil who will seduce you with her magic and lure you away from the one true god, or the Hollywood version that portrays Witches with cannibalistic tendencies in the vain attempt to stay forever young. Both versions, of course, include the use of supernatural powers and often the ability to shape shift, resulting in a Witch who isn’t human or governed by natural laws.
However, if you examine Witches historically, you will find that Witchcraft is in fact the world’s oldest religion. It is a faith based not on theology or a rulebook, but poetry and personal expression. To Witches, the Earth is alive and living things are not only interconnected but also sacred. Moreover, unlike the monotheisms that have stemmed from Witchcraft, Witches do not believe in a man or woman up in the sky who is judging us all and watching everything we do to keep score. Instead, they worship the Goddess, who is not a person, but the world itself – manifest in every living thing. And magic has more to do with a change in consciousness or mindset than it does with supernatural powers akin to Harry Potter.
In other words, Witches are the original hippies and tree huggers, smelling of patchouli, smoking pot or eating shrooms and hanging out in the woods with friends. They have always been about having fun – drinking, dancing, experimenting with hallucinogens and having sex with those they loved, whether they were married or not. And as a matriarchal society, women were revered for their ability to produce life, often at the risk of their own. As a result, the misuse of sexuality and rape were the highest crimes for their society.
In addition, mostly women filled highly esteemed roles in these societies. The midwives helped with fertility, abortions and births. Herbalists knew all of the plants in the area and how to use them properly, such as willow bark for headaches or pains. Women were also the priestesses, while male Witches were the priests, of this ancient religion, leading others through celebrations of the cycles of the Earth.
You might be wondering how these nonviolent people who believed in nothing but harmony with the Earth went missing from our societies, and you really have no farther to look than your local Church.
As the three major monotheisms grew to power, Witchcraft was slowly forced into the background as Christianity adapted to fit Pagan belief structures. For instance, most Pagan religions focus on trinities of gods – a mother, father and son or daughter. As the Christians promoted their own trinity, it became easier to convert Pagans. Christians even adopted some of their ancient celebrations, such as Christmas (Winter Solstice or Yule) and Easter (Spring Equinox or Eostre). But in order for Christianity to work as a powerful monotheism, they needed to squelch all other faiths. As a result, a highly effective Christian campaign began in the Middle Ages, and didn’t stop for four centuries.
In fact, the Christians in Europe from the 14th to 18th century lead the charge for what is known as the Burning Times, during which anywhere between tens of thousands to a million people were tortured, brutally murdered or burned at the stake – often a combination of all three.
And do you know what the biggest risk factor of being a victim of the Burning Times was?
They targeted women who were educated, independent and empowered. More specifically, any woman who dared challenge the Church or failed to attend services was considered to be immoral, unclean, arrogant and unfeminine, and they had to be broken. Taken down a few notches. Until they were nice, submissive and well-behaved girls who didn’t drink, dance, laugh or have sex (and when they did have sex, it had to be for procreation and with her husband – not for fun or pleasure).
So, to survive and not get brutally murdered, Witches went underground. They went off the grid, and took their secrets with them. Of course, some women tried to maintain their place in the community as healers and midwives. After all, these were trades passed on from one generation to the next, and healing had always been a predominantly female profession up to that point. Then it was decreed that women could no longer study or practice medicine. The law stated, “if a woman dare to cure without having studied, she is a Witch and must die.”
By the 19th century, Witches had fallen from positions of respect in society and could no longer share their knowledge with those around them for fear of death. Organized, male-focused religions pushed out the matriarchs of our society, killed many of them and slandered their craft so badly that some people no longer believe in the very existence of Witches.
Instead, many people believe they simply exist in fairy tales and entertainment as archetypes of powerful women who must be defeated. And to make sure the message is driven home, these stories have strong women using their knowledge for evil by seducing husbands, cursing families, turning prince charmings into beasts and literally sucking the life out children.
With such powerful and terrifying misrepresentations of Witchcraft spreading through literature and religious texts, actual practitioners were forced into secrecy, resulting in the creation of covens, as thirteen members or less are easier to keep hidden. They shared their secrets only with their children and members of their coven to ensure safety.
As a result of these efforts, Witchcraft has been kept alive in select regions of the world. Yet, it is still not safe in certain areas to even be associated with it. Even in the past decade, women in India, Africa and Papua New Guinea have been accused of Witchcraft and killed.
And while I am a fervent anti-theist, I have a great deal of empathy for the modern Witch, as their history is so closely intertwined with the history of women. For instance, consider this medieval saying, “Every woman a Witch.”
Even today most women are not treated equally. Many are not actively encouraged to be independent, sexually active or defiant. Professions such as the medical field are still predominantly male. All major monotheisms are male-focused, often providing women with little more than a Madonna/whore complex.
Christians in parts of Africa and other areas of the world are still forcing young girls to undergo genital mutilation. Even in the United States, many women are not encouraged to get a higher education. Instead, they are encouraged to get married at a young age and begin to start families, often in the name of Christian Family Values. And as a result, many women choose to be defiant on at least one night of the year – Halloween.
Also known as Samhain, October 31st is the Witch’s new year. A time to celebrate the past, honor ancestors and embrace the future. This Halloween, it’s time to at least acknowledge the truth about the history of Witchcraft, honor the men, women and children who have died and embrace a future where women are proudly defiant and beholden to no one. Blessed be.
A.J. Sørensen is an actor, playwright and writer. She is the co-founder of Words by Sørensen and lives in Logan Square with her partner in crime. Sadly, they do not have a corgi.